Opposition to Climate Action and Reproductive Rights Is a Public Health Failure

Climate Strike in Toronto, 2019. (Piqsels / Creative Commons)

Climate change continues to cause fatal flooding and heatwaves that are devastating the U.S. while the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, history-making legislation that would put $369 billion towards climate action and clean energy, is still on a tenuous path to passage. The reconciliation bill would reduce carbon emissions roughly 40 percent by 2030 and mitigate the most devastating impacts of the climate crisis, such as life-threatening illnesses and housing and job instability—all of which affect the health of pregnant women. 

The climate’s connection to reproductive rights, especially abortion services, is often overlooked. The health and economic complications caused by pollution and a rapidly changing climate are major stress contributors and can have devastating consequences on developing fetuses, leading many to seek abortion services.

But the right to abortion access continues to be under siege in states like South Carolina that want to outlaw websites providing abortion information. Between the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the stripping of the EPA’s authority, people who stand to lose the most in these troubling times are those with fewer reproductive choices and residents of pollution-ridden areas. 

During oral arguments for Dobbs v. Jackson, Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s focus on adoption as a substitute for abortion neglected the significant risks of pregnancy and childbirth, especially among minority populations. She dismissed the fact that the risk of death associated with childbirth is 14 times higher than that of an abortion, or that the United States ranks last among all developed nations in maternal mortality and Black women carry a three to four fold higher risk of dying from childbirth—a risk that her own adopted daughter may have to face if she becomes pregnant. 

Risks related to pregnancy and the effects of climate change are felt unequally. Environmental racism stemming from redlining and the lack of access to green spaces have led to environmental imbalances. People of color are 61 percent more likely to live in areas of air pollution and live, on average, in census tracts that are 2 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than their non-Hispanic counterparts. 

These injustices can have deadly consequences. From 2000 to 2012, although African Americans only made up a quarter of New York City’s population, they accounted for almost half the city’s heat-related deaths.    

The impacts of climate change are particularly dangerous for pregnant people and even more so for pregnant people of color. Adverse birth outcomes, such as low birth weight, preterm birth and stillbirth, are associated with heat and pollutant exposure, and these outcomes disproportionately affect Black women. At a time when their healthcare is limited by both access and racial bias, climate change only exacerbates an already fraught pregnancy journey. 

Activists in a flash mob put on by the group “Act for Abortion” in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 22, 2022, the 49th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

While some praise the anti-abortion stance of the Supreme Court’s conservative justices, their radical ideological views are in direct opposition to the American public. A majority of Americans believe in abortion access and that climate change will harm human health. 

The chasm between law and public sentiment has created historic moments of collective despair, but despair can transform into collective action. In America, we can use the three M’s: our mouths, our muscles and our money. Show up at city council meetings and lawmakers’ town halls to question how they will protect our climate and reproductive rights. Demand support for climate action from elected officials like Senator Joe Manchin who initially opposed climate legislation. He eventually agreed to the reconciliation bill to meet the goal of slashing carbon emissions. Protest by using websites like WeWontGoBack.com to help find local rallies and concrete actions to take to help people find avenues for abortion care. Vote in city and state elections so that officials who support climate action and reproductive rights can enact legislation on a local scale. Donate to organizations like People vs. Fossil Fuels and local abortion access funds to ensure that their vital work can continue in these tumultuous times. 

 Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that adversity and failure ‘inevitably help you grow in positive ways.’ If ever there was a time to let that growth propel us, let it be now. Vigorously dissent with righteous anger and relentless determination, and be the backlash against anti-science, anti-public health agendas.

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

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Christine James, M.D., M.Sc., is an allergist-immunologist with UC San Diego Health and a member of the Public Health Advisory Council of Climate Action Campaign and Climate Health Now. She is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineRJames.